Seven years later, after a liver transplant, cancer, and knee surgery, Savannah Rennie’s career coming to a close

“I live for the pressure. I grew up under pressure. Pressure situations fire me up.”
— Savannah Rennie

Sometime in the next couple of weeks the Marquette season will end, bringing to a close the greatest individual comeback story in the history of college volleyball.

No, check that. 

It’s the greatest story in the history of college volleyball.

Hyperbole?

You decide after you read what Savannah Rennie has gone through while playing for Cal and Marquette.

For now, the Golden Eagles, who tied for the Big East regular-season title and got an at-large bid after losing to Creighton in the conference tournament final, play Dayton on Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The winner plays the winner between No. 6 Purdue, the host team, and Illinois State.

“I just want to really play well and put an exclamation point on a roller coaster of a career,” Rennie said.

Seriously, roller coaster doesn’t even come close.

Whenever this season finishes for Rennie, it will mark the end of a seven-year college sojourn unlike any other.

“I had seven media days,” she said with a laugh. “And two of those I was very unwell. Do they even count?”

Heck, yeah.

Rennie, a 6-foot-2 middle from San Diego who has played on the right side, and now, because of injuries, is at outside hitter for Marquette, turns 25 on December 18. That’s also the day of the NCAA national-championship match.

Before going any further, you need to know the story. This is not the first time we’ve written about her, but the third, and there was a video interview as well. All those links follow.

She’s had a liver transplant. 

Beat cancer. 

Blew out her knee and had it reconstructed. 

And last week was named to the all-Big East first team for the second straight season.

This is actually from the last time we wrote about Savannah, on June 22, 2020. She was back in San Diego after graduating from Cal, waiting to move to Milwaukee:

In 2015 she came out of Torrey Pines High School in San Diego as PrepVolleyball.com’s No. 20 senior ace. After getting to Cal that summer, she was diagnosed with congenital hepatic fibrosis with portal hypertension. She needed a new liver and got one on May 17, 2016. We interviewed her soon after and wrote about her then for the first time.

Incredibly, in 2016, she actually played in 12 Cal matches. But in July 2017, Rennie was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin post-transplant lymphoma and missed the entire season battling the cancer.

In 2018, she got on the court again and played in 27 sets.

Finally, last season, Rennie was back. She was the Pac-12 player of the week the first week of the season! We caught up again, this time by video. 

It marked an amazing comeback that almost seemed incomprehensible. Rennie was playing well, the Bears were 13-1, and then the bottom fell out again. 

In practice the second week of October, Rennie blew out her right knee. 

“It’s like comical at this point,” she said dryly.

For the record, she played on it anyway. The Cal season ended and she graduated that December and had surgery.

Ultimately, she decided to play one more year, choosing Marquette, site unseen. She would be a sixth-year graduate student. 

We wrote about that, too, and Rennie said at the time, “Before I even talked to them I watched their Volleymetrics to see what they were like. And to see what they were like on the court and see if me as a player would fit in well. I saw a lot of great things.”

When she arrived on campus in Milwaukee in July of 2020, it was her first time in Wisconsin, much less Marquette. 

“I never got to visit because of COVID. I had never been in Wisconsin until I stepped foot here.”

She shipped some boxes ahead of time, flew with two pieces of luggage, and her aunt, who lives in Cincinnati, picked her up.

“I had nothing. I literally gave it all away when I left Cal because I was done with school. So I was starting new, COVID was weird, and it was a huge leap of faith. I had no idea. I barely knew my coaches. Never met them in person. It’s crazy that all this happened.”

When she arrived, Rennie stayed to herself and was still doing physical therapy on her knee, “because I was nowhere near ready.”

She wasn’t even jumping at that point.

“It was just me and a couple teammates and COVID was rampant. I just spent hours here every day doing physical therapy and then hanging out with those teammates. We had to find things to do. We did a tour of the city to our best capacity with COVID. It was a crazy time.”

She had an apartment to herself and that wasn’t so bad.

“Being 24, you kind of get to where living alone is not that bad. I lived with roommates for how long, like six years, so living alone wasn’t bad. And it was also for my health and being able to know who was coming in and out of my apartment. Keeping things clean was really crucial, especially with my health history.”

She was extremely high risk, of course.

“The doctors here were like, ‘We would prefer you live alone.’ ”

Being at Cal helped prepare her. And she already was quite the experienced student.

“You learn how to be a person there. You grow up fast. Cal does that to you, you grow up fast and that’s why I loved it. So making a transition to a new state that I’d never been to and to a team I don’t know and coaches I barely know and having had the Cal experience made it easier to transition here.”

The cancelation of the fall 2020 season also gave her more time to rehab that knee.

“That really allowed me to hone in on recovery and make sure I was doing it right.”

By the way, Rennie has no special diet because of her liver. 

“I can’t have like three fruits because of my medication, but other than that I’m all good. I just eat what makes me feel good and what helps me perform.”

She takes one anti-rejection pill each day and night, something she’ll do forever. 

“I’m very lucky. I had great doctors and I kept myself very healthy and fit otherwise,” she said.

Throughout her physical battles, if nothing else Rennie was in great shape.

“I’m a very workout-oriented person. It makes me happy and I love doing it. That helps. In the offseason you could let it go, but for me it’s every day that I’m doing something and every day it’s going to benefit me on the court, but also my health. I have no pain. I have nothing. And that’s amazing. I don’t know what other transplant patients really feel, but I’m sure they don’t have the best turnout like me. So I’m very fortunate and I had amazing doctors.”

In the truncated season last spring, Marquette finished 10-4, losing to Creighton in the Big East Conference tournament final. There was no at-large bid forthcoming. But because of COVID, college volleyball players got an extra year if they wanted to take it. Rennie did, which brings her to season seven.

Savannah and Big East trophy/Renee Giroux-Rennie photo

This fall, Rennie leads Marquette in blocks with 112, 18 solo, and is second in kills with 305, 2.80/set, while hitting 307. She wears a sleeve on her right leg when she plays, and it looks as if something’s wrong, but Rennie said it’s precautionary and helps keep down swelling.

Another Marquette graduate student, Taylor Wolf, is now Rennie’s roommate. She’s also in her second year, having transfered after three seasons at Green Bay. Wolf leads the Golden Eagles in kills with 313 and is second in assists. Rennie rewarded a lot of those sets.

“She cares so much about the game,” Wolf said. “It’s just her passion.”

Passion?

Next up for Rennie is coaching and/or playing pro.

“I’m not closing any doors on playing at all. I want to look into playing professionally,” Rennie said. “Definitely with my health history I want to make sure I’m taken care of health-wise and in between, I want to coach. That’s what I want to do. I don’t see myself in any other profession. It’s got to be sports-oriented for me, but coaching specifically. That’s how my brain functions.”

It always has.

“I remember sitting in classes in middle school and drawing out courts and penciling in who I thought was going to play (for her club team). And writing out our rotations to learn them but also to figure out what plays we could run. I had notebooks of them.”

Rennie also played baseball. Not softball. Baseball with the boys. 

“That’s when I knew it was time to hang up the cleats, because when all you can think about is volleyball and when your next tournament is, something’s up. 

“Maybe this is your future.”

She laughed at herself.

“I enjoy coming into the gym every single day. It’s been seven years of the same thing and it’s all I care about. That’s all I want. I get jealous of my coaches that this is their job. I don’t see myself doing anything else.”

Rennie is going to the AVCA Convention in Columbus in a couple of weeks to meet and greet and make some inroads into becoming a coach. 

“If you invest in me, it won’t go to waste,” she said. This is what I want.”

Finally, we talked about her personality. Fewer college volleyball players have been more competitive and intense.

“I’ve thought about this a lot because I know who I am as a player,” she admitted. “But I know I don’t want to be that way as a coach because I won’t be able to be that way. I say that because I’ve seen when coaches are that way. It doesn’t go well.

“People always look at me and say, ‘You wouldn’t be able to change.’ And I go, ‘Watch me.’

“Because I have taken bits and pieces of coaches I’ve seen and want to be like. And I make note of things I don’t want to be like. And I have a very good idea of how I want to be as a coach, because I don’t want to be a woman coach who’s seen as someone who can’t change from where they were as a player.

“I’m very intense, and I will bring intensity, but I will bring a different kind of intensity, because I know the girls who play for me won’t all respond to that and I will know the girls that will.”

She smiled.

“Because I’ll recognize myself in them.”

 ***

We first wrote about Savannah on June 4, 2016, a year after her liver transplant. That story was updated on October 8, 2016, after she returned to the court:

First kill: Cal’s Savannah Rennie all the way back after liver transplant

We did a video interview after she not only came back again, but did it in a big way for Cal, September 4, 2019:

Interview with Cal’s Savannah Rennie, who is in the midst of an inspirational comeback

And then we caught up with her again while she was waiting to move to Milwaukee, June 22, 2020:

Savannah Rennie leaves Cal, comfort zone to play final season at Marquette

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1 COMMENT

  1. Fantastic story. I have to admit when she first went to Marquette I didn’t think she would see any court time due to some sort of illness/injury. She proved me wrong. Good luck to Savannah and Marquette in the tournament.

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